Chicago's Home-Liberation Front
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Housing activists around the country tend to focus on liberating bank-owned properties as the clearest example of the movement’s political analysis of decommodifying human needs like shelter. But in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago, the on-the-ground reality of ownership is even more messy. There, both residents and banks habitually give up their ownership of properties, throwing houses into legal limbo. When vacant houses are littered with animal and human feces, marijuana, used condoms and empty white bags, when the walls are covered in gang signs, when neighbors inform a group of liberators that someone had been shot just the previous night in the backyard of one of the street’s abandoned houses, it doesn’t seem to matter very much what a given building’s legal status is.
The politics of occupying homes in these neighborhoods, therefore, is not only about decommodifying housing and ameliorating homelessness. It is also about recognizing the often overlooked social contract of neighborhoods, where one abandoned home can bring down the quality of life for everyone. During the housing crisis, millions were evicted for violating their mortgage contracts, but those evictions did not only punish the homeowners; they punished everyone around them. Perhaps the question, then, is not whether the banks had the right to assert their individual contracts through mortgage repossessions, but whether they had the right to break social contracts through physical eviction. Yes, the individual houses functioned as collateral for the loans, but the survival of the neighborhoods did not. There have been moments throughout U.S. history when the courts have ruled to break contracts, including both mortgage and property-ownership contracts, when the public welfare is threatened.
Even an afternoon’s tour of South Chicago will reveal that we are in one of those moments in which something will have to break. The city is cutting funding for shelters in order to spend millions tearing down vacant buildings. And at a time like this, a growing number of people are deciding that the most rational thing to do is — in the words of J.R. Fleming of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign — “play matchmaker to pair peopleless homes with homeless people.”